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Hard times require soft skills: Going back to the basics of dental care

Jan. 11, 2023
“My patients call my chair ‘dental therapy’ and look forward to seeing me.” How can you make sure you offer a welcoming environment for patients? Try cultivating these three soft skills.

My personal story starts with growing up as a child of a single mother. She could not afford much as a teacher with four children, but my dental needs were met. Glenna, my childhood hygienist, always welcomed me with a smile. She inspired me to pursue dental hygiene as a profession.

My front tooth was shattered in pieces from a swimming party accident, and I had to have a root canal. Ironically, the dental office where I went for that tooth was my first dental assisting job years later. I remember that day because we both looked at each other and said, “Why put on gloves when you can wash your hands and alcohol off instruments?”

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Times have changed over the past three decades. Sterilization, mental health, burnout, and ergonomics are hot topics, but what about the preventive role that goes beyond the chair? Patients and hygienists have a connection. The body has a direct link, and the mouth is a focus of health and wellness. Our job is essential. My patients call my chair “dental therapy” and look forward to seeing me. How does this happen? Let’s go back to the basics: soft skills. At the time, I had no idea what the term meant, but I was told I had them. Let me explain.

What are soft skills?

Dental professionals, like any other health-care providers, require a range of technical and nontechnical skills to deliver high-quality care to their patients. While technical skills, such as knowledge of dental procedures and the ability to operate specialized equipment, are essential to the practice of dentistry, soft skills are equally important in creating a positive and effective health-care experience.

In a study from peer mentoring, nontechnical skills can be defined as a set of social skills, including soft skills, that are perfectly compatible with technical skills but also based on emotional interactions.1 Soft skills, also known as interpersonal or communication skills, refer to the personal attributes and abilities that enable individuals to effectively interact with others. In the context of dentistry, these skills are critical for building trust and rapport with patients, as well as facilitating clear communication and collaboration with colleagues. 

Soft skill no. 1: Empathy

One of the key dental soft skills is empathy, which involves the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. In dentistry, empathy is crucial for creating a supportive and nonjudgmental environment where patients feel comfortable and at ease. By showing empathy and compassion, dental professionals can help patients feel valued and respected, which can reduce anxiety and improve the overall health-care experience. Author Brene Brown states: “Empathy is a strange and powerful thing. There is no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgement, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘you’re not alone.’”2

Soft skill no. 2: Active listening

Another important dental soft skill is active listening, which involves paying attention to what patients are saying and responding in a way that demonstrates understanding and support. Active listening is essential for gathering accurate information about a patient’s dental health, as well as for addressing any concerns or fears they may have. By actively listening to patients, dental professionals can provide personalized care that is tailored to the individual needs and preferences of each patient.

Soft skill no. 3: Strong communication skills 

In addition to empathy and active listening, dental professionals also need strong communication skills effectively convey information to patients and colleagues. This involves being able to clearly explain dental procedures and treatment options in a way that is easy to understand, as well as being able to effectively communicate any changes or updates to a patient’s treatment plan. Clear communication is essential for ensuring that patients are fully informed about their dental health and for promoting collaboration among members of the dental care team. Soft skills include communication skills and personality traits that are important when choosing a dentist, but other factors within the dental office also seem to be important for patients.

One study evaluated factors that people believe are important in a dentist, in addition to characteristics of the ideal dentist. The study also evaluated specific differences in age, gender, and residence. In general, the price of the treatment did not play a role in choosing the ideal dentist.3 Having a genuine connection builds relationships and increases the practice’s bottom line.

Soft skills and excellent patient care

It is important for dental professionals to develop and maintain their soft skills to provide the best possible care to their patients. These skills can be learned and refined through continuous education and training, as well as through regular practice and self-reflection. I had no idea that I had this gift until patients pointed out that my chair was “different” and “welcoming.” They felt comfortable. I believe this is a valuable, teachable knowledge and can be built by soft skills training.

Various educational opportunities can provide valuable insights and techniques for building empathy, active listening, and clear communication. Dental professionals can also enhance their soft skills by building a supportive and collaborative work environment where colleagues are encouraged to share ideas and provide constructive feedback. This type of environment can foster open communication and collaboration, which can help dental professionals improve their soft skills and ultimately provide better care for their patients.

An essential component of high-quality care

Dental soft skills are an essential component of providing high-quality care to patients. By continuously learning and refining these skills, dental professionals can build trust and rapport with patients, facilitate clear communication and collaboration with colleagues, and ultimately improve the overall quality of dental care. In today’s health care, dental professionals face increasing challenges and demands. However, by prioritizing the development of their soft skills, dental professionals can not only provide better care for their patients but also improve their own work environment and job satisfaction. Investing in dental soft skills is an essential component of being a successful and effective dental professional.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Through the Loupes newsletter, a publication of the Endeavor Business Media Dental Group. Read more articles and subscribe to Through the Loupes.


  1. Lluch AM, Lluch C, Arregui M, Jiménez E, Giner-Tarrida L. Peer mentoring as a tool for developing soft skills in clinical practice: a 3-year study. Dent J (Basel). 2021;9(5):57. doi:10.3390/dj9050057
  2. Brown B. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Avery; 2015.
  3. Nitschke I, Ulbrich T, Schrock A, Hopfenmüller W, Jockusch J. What counts for the old and oldest old?—an analysis of patient criteria for choosing a dentist—part II: personal characteristics and soft skills. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022;19(14):8621. doi:10.3390/ijerph19148621